For the Birds Radio Program: Not Extinct!

Original Air Date: Dec. 1, 2003 (estimated date)

Great news from Fiji!

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Not Extinct!

It’s lovely to start a new month with good news. And last week there was an unexpectedly wonderful news release from Fiji. According to BirdLife, a global alliance which works in more than 100 countries, researchers have re-discovered a little songbird called the Long-legged Warbler that was last seen in 1894 and long believed to be extinct. The researchers managed to both photograph and record it. This species had obviously never been heard before by the researchers, but its very unfamiliarity is what made them search out the singers. The combination of distinctive plumage and song is what makes birds so much more easily researched than other wild living things. This is particularly important for secretive species like this one, which is also known as the Long-legged Thicketbird because it lives in dense undergrowth.

The bird used to be called the spirit bird (manu kalou) by local people, perhaps because of its haunting song. Only four specimens were ever collected by scientists, between 1890 and 1894, and there have been no confirmed sightings of it since then, though there were several unconfirmed sightings within the last 20 years. It never occurred to anyone that after four specimens were “collected”—a euphemism for shot—the birds might have simply learned their lesson and kept a wide berth from people. BirdLife’s ornithologists, along with just about everyone else, believed the warbler was extinct.

But then the United Kingdom’s Darwin Initiative funded a survey of Fiji’s rare birds, and BirdLife researchers discovered the bird on Viti Levu, the largest island of Fiji . Vilikesa Masibalavu of BirdLife was the first to identify the warbler. He said: “I heard a loud song which was different from any other Fijian bird.”

The researchers found nine pairs of warblers along a two km stretch of stream with dense thickets of undergrowth in Wabu, a forest reserve. Two of the pairs were seen with recently-fledged young. Another pair was later found in a logged forest.

Now that researchers know the bird’s song, they can readily find it again, and can assess its conservation needs. Guy Dutson said: “Its rediscovery is a rare beacon of hope when all too often birds are becoming extinct in their natural habitats, especially those endemic to small islands. We must now work to ensure this bird does not disappear after managing to hide from us for so long, and I hope to make sure it gets the protection it deserves.”

BirdLife, , says most Fijian forests are unprotected and at risk from logging or conversion to mahogany plantations. And the recent research into the Long-legged Warbler indicates that degraded forest is unsuitable for this species and for many other birds.

Another serious risk is from predation by the introduced mongoose. Mongooses have caused the extinction of all of the ground-nesting birds on the main Fijian islands, as they have to many birds on the Hawaiian Islands. The mongoose is a wonderful species, and deserves protection in its native habitat. But on the islands where it has been introduced, it has been all-too-successful at eating eggs, chicks, and even adult birds that spend their time on the ground.

If there are still dangers looming that could wipe out Long-legged Warblers in the future, right now there are a couple of dozen more of them on the planet than almost anyone ever suspected or dared believe. And where there’s life, or Long-legged Warblers, there’s hope.